- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 26, 2017

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right party cruised to victory Sunday in a regional election that analysts say was an early test of whether she will face any serious challenge when she pursues a fourth term as Europe’s most dominant political leader in September.

Early results showed Mrs. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) with roughly 40 percent of the vote in Germany’s western state of Saarland, dealing a blow to what many saw as the rising appeal of the nation’s resurgent Social Democratic Party (SPD) and its charismatic leader Martin Schulz.

While SPD is reported to have won about 30 percent in Sunday’s vote — generally regarded as a bellwether ahead of Germany’s Sept. 24 general election — the CDU victory suggests Mrs. Merkel’s hold on power is stronger than some predicted.

On a separate front, the development also dims the hopes of Germany’s far-right, anti-European Union politicians, who had been seen to be surging ahead of the national election.

Mrs. Merkel, 62, has been chancellor since 2005, and her no-nonsense attitude, strict European ideals and fiscal conservatism are widely viewed as critical to Germany’s prowess as the EU’s economic powerhouse.

But her popularity took a hit recently when nationalists slammed her decision to open the country’s border to more than 1 million Syrian and other refugees fleeing war and hardship in the Middle East and other global hot spots.

The vulnerability gave rise to the far-right Alternative for Germany party (AfD), which had bruised Mrs. Merkel in regional elections last year. However, AfD won just 6.1 percent of the vote in Saarland on Sunday, suggesting that its national appeal may not be as widespread as many thought.

The lower-than-expected showing for the SPD, meanwhile, was a setback for Mr. Schulz.

The 61-year-old outspoken former president of the European Parliament has re-energized the center-left party by campaigning on a promise to bring it back to its social justice roots as a champion of Germany’s working poor.

Heading into Sunday’s vote, which was the first of three state polls in the run-up to September’s national contest, analysts had said that a big win for CDU might trigger a waterfall effect across Germany’s 16 federal states, where Mrs. Merkel’s stronghold is seen to be under contention.

Mr. Schulz sought to exude optimism Sunday. He acknowledged that the Saarland outcome should not be “sugar-coated,” but also said the election process “is a long-distance run, not a sprint,” according to Reuters.

Mrs. Merkel’s CDU has controlled Saarland, a small, predominantly Catholic state with about 1 million residents on the border with France, since the turn of the century.

What remains to been seen whether Mr. Schulz’s fiery rhetoric and passionate optimism, which presents a stark contrast to the Mrs. Merkel’s image as a calculated master politician, can truly challenge the chancellor elsewhere in Germany.

Opinion polls before Sunday from the nation’s Forsa Institute showed the Socialists at 31 percent nationally, just behind Mrs. Merkel’s center-right CDU with 34 percent.

Analysts say the outcomes may be tight in regional elections in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein on May 7, and North Rhein-Westphalia on May 14.

North Rhein-Westphalia, which has some 18 million residents — roughly one-quarter of Germany’s population — is often called the “German California” and usually leans left. It’s also Mr. Schulz’s home state.

• Austin Davis contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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